Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – March 2015 issue
Since kids and families constantly grow and change, effective parenting is often the ultimate moving target, and planning extracurricular activities is no exception. I remember well the frustration that came when I finally sorted out an ideal schedule of outings for my first baby, only to have her suddenly become a veritable plague upon our mommy-and-me yoga class and react to her beloved “musical storyteller” with abject disgust. I adjusted for the changing winds but was quickly thrown off again by the arrival of our second child. Oh, brother (literally). With two kids, the activities sweet spot is even more elusive as not only do each child’s needs and abilities transform over time, but the dynamic between them continuously shifts as well. What works well for a baby and a toddler becomes impossible when dealing with two toddlers. Then the first develops impulse control, and a new world of possibility opens.
Further complicating matters, the kiddos aren’t the only ones with changing requirements and capacity. As a new mom, I succumbed to marketing that induced ambition and threatened guilt: “When you’re a parent, you want to give your young child the very best. You want to expose them to every possible opportunity to learn and grow. At Music Together, this starts with creating a bond through music.” Yet as the months passed, I realized that my primary goal in planning our days wasn’t building neural pathways or encouraging prosocial behavior through dopamine release. Sure, I wanted a smart and well-adjusted kid, but of more immediate concern was filling up the seemingly endless hours of the day, preferably with some adult interaction. Once I began juggling a baby and a non-napping toddler, I maximized for time to read a book or clip my fingernails in peace. After both kids regularly slept through the night, I had the energy and desire to explore the world alongside them, but finances were tight and a 20 percent sibling discount felt downright laughable. Then I got pregnant for a third time and the ability to keep an eye on two kids while sitting in one spot became paramount.
As we passed through each of these phases, I had to reconceptualize the extracurricular activity bullseye. Rather than shooting for one perfectly orchestrated lineup of events, I learned to aim for a persistently reevaluated and rearranged schedule (or lack thereof) that minimizes stress and maximizes enjoyment for everyone involved.
An infant and a toddler
After the birth of a new baby, many parents need more flexibility. Frequent feedings, unpredictable naps, and random fussiness can make arriving at a certain place at a specific time challenging. Yet in some ways newborns are the most portable kids, and pre-walkers can be comparatively easy to manage.
If you can keep the trains running on time with ease:
- Carry on with your toddler’s pre-existing schedule, and bring the baby along. Most businesses won’t charge for or exclude a second child for quite a while, and the continuity will help your toddler through this big transition.
- In order to obtain both enrichment for your older child and a little me-time, plan a drop-off class during the infant’s nap. If sleep isn’t predictable enough or the baby won’t snooze on the go, try scheduling the drop-off class at a venue that engages the little one too. For infants, this can mean an old aquarium in the corner (forget the fish—a bubble filter alone can buy enough time to catch up on email). For older babies, try a spot that features both drop-off classes and a playroom such as Recess Urban Recreation, Peek-a-Boo Factory, or the Randall Museum.
- Alternatively, plan a drop-off class for your toddler anywhere and plan to spend the hour lavishing attention on your new arrival without the older child’s resentful eye.
If getting out the door on command brings a family member to tears:
- Consider swapping enrollment for a more flexible enrichment plan: attending drop-in classes, such as those offered by SF Rec and Park, JCCSF’s KinderGym, and JAMaROO Kids; museum programming, such as Toddler Circle Time at the Bay Area Discovery Museum; and story times.
- Take advantage of a pre-walker’s transportability by loading him into a front pack or stroller and allowing your toddler to lead you around a large, open venue such as the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, or the SF Zoo.
- For older babies, look for playgrounds where the little one can sit while the toddler roams. Smaller, bounded parks with high visibility and baby swings are ideal. If you’ve got a baby who crawls and puts everything she touches in her mouth, sand-free venues can eliminate stress. Try Sue Bierman Park Playground or Betty Ong Rec Center Playground.
- Although it can be difficult to find, a gym child care center with a creative caregiver can allow you to reclaim much-needed endorphins while leaving both kids in an environment that’s as stimulating as a tot music class. The JCCSF, the Bay Club, and certain 24 Hour Fitness and YMCA locations in the city feature kids’ programs.
- Drop-in playgroups and play dates present a mixed bag. Some parents swear by the companionship at this stage. Others prefer to steer clear since doing so preserves more attention for the toddler which in turn decreases sibling rivalry.
Two or more toddlers
When one parent attempts to mind two kids who are both up and running yet neither is capable of stopping on command, taking them to a large, open, and crowded museum is like entering the 10th circle of hell. Instead, try one of these strategies with twins or two toddlers of different ages:
- The enclosed play room or play space—with almost all areas visible from one vantage point—can be a godsend. Private, carefully curated spaces such as Recess, Peekadoodle Kidsclub, and Peek-a-Boo Factory, are ideal and sometimes come with enrichment experiences, but they’re awfully pricey. Some similar, though not as swanky, indoor playgrounds are open to the public. First Christian Church on Duboce Park and the Eureka Valley Rec Center play area are two free options.
- If you can afford it, in terms of both money and energy, look for concurrent classes—drop-off for the older child and mommy-and-me for the younger one—at large operations such as American Gymnastics Club, AcroSports, the YMCA, and La Petite Baleen.
- Mixed-age classes also work well. Businesses such as MyGym, Music Together, and Breakfast with Enzo that offer broad age-range classes manage diverse abilities and interests exceptionally, but they charge for each child. For a more affordable route, enroll one child or the other in a class that allows siblings to tag along free of charge. For example, the SF Rec and Park computer system won’t accept payment for a child who is technically too old, but “Simply Fun” instructors generally allow decently behaved big sibs to join.
- Those with organizational energy can arrange co-op classes by pairing affordable spaces with energetic parents. Mission Soccer at Parque Ninos Unidos is a great example of a parent-run class that welcomes siblings.
- Bounded playgrounds with high visibility are still necessary but not necessarily sufficient; try to find ones that fit that bill but also feature a small structure as well as a large one such as Mission Playground, Franklin Square Park, and Duboce Park Playground. Avoid large, crowded playgrounds, and ones with a layout that makes it difficult to keep an eye on two kids at once such as Koret Children’s Quarter, Helen Diller Playground, and Kid Power Park.
- Free open gyms such as the one at Eureka Valley Rec Center are surprisingly toddler-friendly. Grab a basketball from the bin and let the kiddos run themselves in circles rather than run you ragged.
- Story times that take place in a separate room with one exit work well. Good examples are the Main Library, the Mission Bay Branch Library, and the Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Branch Library. Others, such as the ones at Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library and Folio Books, often don’t fly at this stage, because there’s nothing separating the storytelling activity from shelves of books ripe for throwing on the floor or computers just waiting to be banged.
- Some museums offer the opportunity to effectively corral two kids by segmenting spaces and limiting exit points. Try the Randall Museum, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and the tiny Railway Museum. Call Pump It Up to see whether the door between Arenas A and B will be closed; if it is, you can keep an eye on two kids from one spot.
- Playgroups in private homes or in bounded public spaces also work well for two toddlers. Check out GGMG Neighborhood Meetups as well as get-togethers organized via Meetup.com and Facebook.
A toddler and a child
As soon as one child transforms into a fairly reliable listener, much more of the world becomes your oyster:
- Before her fourth birthday, my daughter learned to respond to my call of “Code Stu!” by dropping everything and chasing after me so that I could tail Stuart. If something similar will work for your older child, most museums, story times, and playgrounds become doable again.
- Classes that take place at a museum at no additional cost allow for enrichment of two kids without per capita enrollment fees. For example, $119 a year affords you and up to four kids entrée into the fabulous Children’s Creativity Museum and its twice-weekly Early Birdles music and movement class.
- As Alyson Schafer suggests in Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, parents with the means to do so can sign siblings up for drop-off classes at different venues in order to help them develop distinct identities and interests that reduce sibling rivalry.
- Letting the kids loose in unbounded outdoor areas such as Ocean Beach, Kite Hill Open Space, Crissy Field, or Golden Gate Park, became much less stressful for me at this stage. Playgrounds with adjoining open fields that are separated from the road by a fence such as Douglass Playground, Glen Park Playground, and Midtown Terrace Playground, provide a half-measure in that you can allow the older kid a long leash while cabining the younger one.
Once my oldest could reliably stay close to her younger brother, very few venues remained closed to us. However, when he too developed the ability to resist an attractive nuisance, a few more options and considerations came into play:
- Help maturing kids whittle down their activities to focus on the ones that best suit their individual needs. For example, in Redefining Girly, Melissa Atkins Wardy argues that art classes and sports help young girls resist gender stereotypes and the sexualizing of girlhood by “showing [them] that our bodies are instruments, not ornaments.”
- Museums that protect tantalizing climbing and tactile opportunities from kids with a mere “do not touch” sign or a rope no longer terrified me and tortured the children.
- Similarly, playgrounds that lack fencing or visibility finally worked for us.
- Two words: Movie. Theater.
Of course, the most important consideration in mixing and matching experiences like these is the comfort of the individuals involved. As you draw back the bowstring, accept and work with the limitations facing you. While you shouldn’t let sudden movements throw you, try to stay nimble and be willing to modify your stance. At the end of the day, successfully planning extracurricular activities with multiple kids is all about recognizing and honoring the whole family’s perpetually evolving ages and stages.